GPs could be routinely testing patients for their genetic risk of cancer within five years following a landmark study.

The biggest investigation of its kind ever carried out has greatly multiplied the number of known genetic markers linked to breast, prostate and ovarian cancer.

dna cancer

Scientists compared the DNA of cancer patients with a similarly sized sample from the general population

In future, the results may make it possible to single out individuals with a potentially lethal hand of genetic cards using a simple saliva test.

They can then be monitored closely for the first signs of developing cancer, or - in the most high risk cases - be offered preventative treatment.

Experts believe the cheap and easy tests could be conducted in family doctors' surgeries.

Samples would initially be sent off to laboratory specialists, but eventually GPs could be doing the analysis themselves.

"We're on the verge of being able to use our knowledge of these genetic variations to develop tests that could complement breast cancer screening and take us a step closer to having an effective prostate cancer screening programme," said study author Professor Doug Easton, a Cancer Research UK scientist from Cambridge University.

Ovarian cancer tests are also envisaged, but these will take longer to develop after more research.

The international scientists compared the DNA of more than 100,000 cancer patients with a similarly sized sample from the general population.

They used microchip technology capable of identifying more than 200,000 genetic variants, some of which were suspected of being linked to cancer.

The analysis highlighted more than 80 inherited regions of the genetic code that increase an individual's risk of developing one of the three cancers.

Each variant - a one-letter change in the code called a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) - on its own has a small impact on cancer risk. But added together, large numbers of the variants greatly increase the chances of disease.

In the case of prostate cancer, men in the top 1% of the risk table are 4.7 times more likely than the average man to develop the disease.

Half of all men in this category who also have a strong family history of prostate cancer can expect to succumb to the illness during their lifetime.

Similarly just under a third of women in the 1% of those most at risk of breast cancer are likely to develop the disease. This excluded women carrying the well-known high risk genes BRCA1 and BRCA2.

For ovarian cancer, being in the top 1% having many of the the variants more than doubled the lifetime risk from 1.8% to 4%.

The variants found tended to affect the activity of genes rather than the kind of proteins they made.

A total of 23 new genetic risk factors for prostate cancer were discovered, increasing the known total to 78.

Of these, 16 were associated with particularly aggressive and life-threatening forms of the disease.

The number of SNPs linked to breast cancer was more than doubled to 49, while 11 new variants that raise the risk of ovarian cancer were found.

More than 1,000 scientists from 130 institutions in Europe and the US took part in the Collaborative Oncological Gene-environment Study (Cogs).

Their findings appear in 13 papers in five journals, Nature Genetics, Nature Communications, PLoS Genetics, the American Journal of Human Genetics and Human Molecular Genetics.

The chip used in the analysis cost just £30, and although the study relied on blood samples the same tests can easily be carried out on saliva.

This opens up the possibility of patients being tested for their genetic risk of cancer in GP surgeries.

Professor Ros Eeles, a leading member of the team from the Institute of Cancer Research in London, said: "Eventually it will be at the point of care because the person making the decision is very likely to be your GP.

"Although we're not there yet, I think we're going to get there fairly fast."

The SNP test could become widely available for both breast and prostate cancer within five years, she said.

Some women already known to have BRCA genes that greatly increase the risk of breast cancer may be tested in as little as 18 months.

Much more research is still needed to identify the genetic drivers of cancer, said the scientists.

In the case of all three diseases, about 60% of the genetic risk factors remained unexplained.

The researchers also stressed that lifestyle and environmental influences worked together with genes to raise the risk of cancer.

As well as helping to identify high and low risk individuals, the findings could pave the way to new treatments and highlight previously unknown aspects of cancer development.

It was hoped that some drugs already in use could be adapted to target the biological pathways uncovered.

Dr Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, which co-funded the research, said: "This groundbreaking international work highlights how complex cancer is.

"Hundreds, if not thousands of genes are likely to play a role in how cancers start. But by understanding why some people seem to be at greater risk of developing cancer we can look towards an era where we can identify them and take steps to reduce their chances of getting cancer or pick up the disease at its earliest stages."

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • A lump or swelling anywhere on your body needs checking out

    AXA’s research found that 79% of people were able to correctly identify breast lumps as a potential indicator of cancer. But a lump or swelling in any part of the body, including the armpit, neck, abdomen, groin or chest area, is worth having checked by a doctor.

  • Talk about your toilet habits

    Diarrhoea or changes in bowel habits are most likely to be caused by a stomach bug or eating something that disagrees with you. But if you’re noticing changes that have lasted more than a few days, for example if your bowel movements are looser for three weeks or more, or you notice any blood when you’ve been to the toilet, then make an appointment to get it checked out.

  • Sores and ulcers should disappear quickly – investigate them if they don’t

    A lot of people get mouth ulcers when their immune system is low or they’re stressed. Generally they’re nothing to worry about and, as the lining of the mouth regenerates itself every couple of weeks, shouldn’t last long. But any ulcer that hasn’t healed after three weeks merits attention from your doctor or dentist. The same goes for any sore or spot that lasts for several weeks without healing – get it checked by a doctor.

  • Difficult passing urine – not just an inevitable consequence of age

    Many men find it more difficult to pass urine as they get older, needing to go more often or urgently or being unable to go when they need to. These problems are usually caused by an enlarged prostate, which is a common condition that is not in itself cause for concern. But occasionally these symptoms can be a sign of prostate cancer – either way, men experiencing these symptoms should see their GP. Similarly, while urinary tract infections are the most likely cause of women having pain or difficulty passing urine, this should pass relatively quickly. If it doesn’t, then any sudden urges to pass urine or the need to go more often should be discussed with your doctor.

  • Lost weight without dieting?

    It’s natural for most people’s weight to fluctuate over time. But if you haven’t instigated any changes in your diet or exercise regime and have obviously lost weight, then talk to your doctor. And if you’re experiencing heavy night sweats you should seek medical advice – these don’t always have a sinister cause, and can be brought about by certain infections or medications, but they’re worth checking.

  • Coughing up blood needs to be checked out

    If you’ve coughed up any blood, you should see your doctor, regardless of the amount of blood or frequency. It can be a sign of lung cancer, so needs to be checked out.

  • Coughs and sore throats

    Most of us will experience coughs or croaky voices at some point, normally when we’ve had a cold. But as with many other changes to your body, anything that hasn’t gone away after three weeks or so should be investigated.

  • Educate yourself on what to look out for

    AXA’s research found women were more likely than men to identify key cancer warning signs, including breast lumps, changes in bowel habits and irregular moles. But for both men and women, ensuring you’re aware of symptoms to keep an eye out for is important. Knowledge is power: understanding what you’re looking for means you can any changes checked out quickly.

  • Know your own body

    AXA’s research found only 6% of men and 3% of women check their bodies daily for anything unusual. But understanding what’s normal for your own body is essential if you’re to spot when anything has changed. If you do notice changes that are persisting for a long time, or causing you pain and discomfort, then see your GP.

  • Don’t put off seeing the doctor!

    A sizeable 61% of people AXA spoke to admitted they’d delayed seeing their doctor when they spotted changes that could be potential flags for cancer. But early detection of any problems can make a huge difference if any treatment is then needed. Similarly, if changes are harmless your doctor will be able to reassure you. Overall, the sooner you go to see your GP, the better.